Thanks to a much-improved defense, Morehead State is enjoying college basketball’s biggest turnaround.
Pegged eighth in the Ohio Valley preseason poll, few could have predicted that Morehead State would climb this far — and this fast — up the OVC ranks.
In a league often dominated by Belmont and Murray State with occasional sleepers sprinkled in, the Eagles’ rise into the league title conversation should not go unnoticed.
Preston Spradlin and Morehead State are enjoying the biggest turnaround in all of college basketball season. After finishing last season ranked 316th in KenPom, MSU is quickly closing in on the top 150 at 13-6 overall, eyeing its first NCAA Tournament bid since the 2011 Louisville upset.
The turnaround statement is no hyperbole — as of Tuesday, Morehead State owns the largest positive swing in KenPom since opening day.
Coach Spradlin’s Eagles have taken a substantial leap on the defensive side of the floor since last year. Morehead State is allowing just 62.4 points per game (22nd nationally) and 0.973 points per possession (92nd nationally); last season’s ranks were 194th and 294th, respectively.
“We sat down this summer as a staff and wanted to find ways where we could get better, and that started on the defensive side of the ball by studying other teams,” Morehead State assistant coach Jonathan Mattox said on the College Basketball Heat Check on All-Access Media. “What can we implement? How can our ball-screen defense get better? How can our post defense get better?”
An improved lineup behind three key additions has led the way.
Freshman forward Johni Broome has had one of the best Year 1 campaigns in the nation. Broome, a 6-10/235-pound Tampa native, ranks in the top 100 nationally in offensive rebounding rate, defensive rebounding rate and block percentage. He is one of just 11 players this season accomplishing the feat on a list that includes the likes of Western Kentucky’s Charles Bassey, Kentucky’s Isaiah Jackson, Memphis’ Moussa Cisse and Rutgers’ Myles Johnson.
Broome’s interior presence and athleticism prevent opposing teams from asserting themselves down low. Last year’s team was low on size and the lack of extra possessions via turnovers and second-chance opportunities placed even more pressure on a struggling offense. With Broome anchoring the paint, Morehead State is forcing far more contested jumpers and one-and-done possessions.
Though their numbers might not pop off the page quite like Broome’s, Wright State transfer Skyelar Potter and McNeese transfer KJ Hunt Jr. are elevating the Eagle program as well. Potter, a 6-3 guard, does a little bit of everything — he already has 33 3-pointers through 18 games, shows plenty of effort on the offensive and defensive boards, and is a great athlete. Hunt, meanwhile, teams up with Ta’lon Cooper as the team’s primary floor leaders and distributors, both tallying 3.4 assists per game.
A daunting nonconference schedule set the foundation for Morehead State to grow and become a legitimate league contender.
The Eagles pieced together the nation’s 17th-toughest nonconference schedule, according to KenPom. Spradlin’s squad opened the campaign against Kentucky and Richmond in Lexington and took on Ohio State in Columbus the following week. Morehead battled Clemson on Dec. 21 in its final game before the holiday break.
It hasn’t lost since.
“Throughout the losses we learned a lot about ourselves and we got better and it has paid off at the start of conference play,” Mattox said.
The remaining league slate won’t be a cakewalk either. Morehead will look for a series sweep against Murray State on Thursday, which would be the program’s first Racers sweep since 2013. Most importantly, Morehead is still set to take on 18-1 Belmont twice this month (Feb. 13 at Belmont; Feb. 27 at home) in what figures to go a long way in determining the OVC title.
Regardless of how the season concludes, the Eagles are way ahead of schedule and expect to bring back the bulk of this year’s roster next season. It’s a testament to how Spradlin and his staff have locked in and built the program after a few challenging seasons.
Spradlin, a John Calipari disciple, was elevated to the full-time head coaching position after two years as a Morehead State assistant. He took over as the interim head coach during the ’16-17 season and a 12-9 stretch convinced the administration to remove the interim tag. With a 13-6 start to the year, Morehead State’s next win will be the most in a single season under Spradlin.
After four consecutive years ranked worse than 250th nationally in defensive efficiency, Morehead’s “defense travels” mentality builds the foundation for a sustainable run in the OVC.
Thanks to the No. 91 defense, Morehead State doesn’t need an electric shooting performance to win games, making this team a tough out in win-or-go-home scenarios. The Eagles are a perfect 10-0 this season when recording at least one point per possession.
Morehead’s scoring might be turning the corner, though, making the Eagles especially dangerous. Over the last six games, MSU is averaging 1.12 points per possession, which would translate to the nation’s 20th-ranked offense if extrapolated over the entire season. Against Tennessee Tech on Saturday, Morehead used a thunderous 13-2 run in the closing minutes to win its ninth straight. A similar 18-3 stretch after the under-8 timeout sealed the deal against Jacksonville State two nights before.
There isn’t much about Morehead’s turnaround that looks like a fluke. Spradlin’s group defends, finishes strong in crunch time, and isn’t relying on a hot shooting stretch that is bound to simmer. MSU’s biggest tests are ahead, and it’s time to take Morehead State seriously as an OVC contender and March Madness upset candidate.